He’s watching you, Hassan

WHEN President Hassan Rohani spoke on Iranian state television on November 24th he did not give the momentous news many had hoped to hear: there was no nuclear deal with America, and therefore no lifting of debilitating economic sanctions. The deadline for an accord (the second this year) passed with only an agreement that Iran and the so-called P5+1 (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany) would keep talking. They set a new target to reach an outline political agreement by March 1st and a detailed deal by June 30th.

As winter rains came to Tehran, the president sought to reassure citizens that there would, eventually, be a comprehensive deal. But Iranians entertain big doubts. They don’t dispute the commitment of the reformist president; having promised to end the long nuclear crisis and get sanctions lifted, he has more to lose than anyone if it all ends in failure. The question is whether hardliners would block him.

And what of the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has the last word? The nuclear programme has become an almost solitary symbol of national pride for Mr Khamenei and much of the country’s ruling elite, though not necessarily for the wider population, whose pockets are hurting. Thus far Mr Khamenei has given unenthusiastic support to the talks and, by extension, the prospect of rapprochement with America. He previously set down red lines that made agreement difficult. After the extension, Mr Khamenei declared that the world’s colonial powers had failed to bring Iran “to its knees”.

Mr Khamenei’s pessimism may give hardliners, be they members of parliament or commanders of the Revolutionary Guard Corps, greater leeway to criticise Mr Rohani’s diplomacy as well as his attempt to reduce their influence in the economy and key institutions.

The extension keeps Iran’s nuclear programme frozen. Under an interim deal, its centrifuges keep spinning but the stock of fissile material has been diluted from 20% enriched uranium to 5%—pushing back the “breakout capacity” to make atomic weapons (though Iran denies any such intention)—in exchange for limited relief from sanctions. “We would be fools to walk away,” declared John Kerry, the American secretary of state. His officials reckon time is on their side, as sanctions and falling oil prices put pressure on Iran.

America’s domestic politics is unlikely to make a deal any easier, and may well make one harder. Israel’s prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, was delighted at news of the extension. “No deal is better than a bad deal. The deal that Iran was pushing for was terrible...This result is better, a lot better.” At home, critics of Mr Kerry think that even limited sanctions relief is helping Iran. “We’re definitely getting played by the Iranians,” reckons Mark Kirk, a hawkish Republican senator.

The Democrats’ loss of the Senate in the mid-term elections poses two problems for Mr Kerry. First, it is even harder for him to promise that American sanctions will definitively be lifted (as opposed to suspended by presidential waiver). Second, hawks may now be able to promote a previously stalled bipartisan bill to tighten sanctions (it would almost certainly be vetoed by President Barack Obama). Some argue that Congress must stand tough in order to get the best deal. That said, a tantalising grand bargain with Iran, which might ease tensions elsewhere, seems to have moved a bit further out of reach.